Monthly Archives: January 2014

Minkowitz and Me

by Judith Fein (Santa Fe, NM)

When I was 10 years old, while other girls were playing with dolls, I was obsessed with the shtetl, or village, my grandmother came from. I begged my parents to take me to Brooklyn, so I could sit next to her, feel the softness of her skin, and ask her about her village in Russia.

My grandmother was not forthcoming. Nor did she know exactly where her shtetl was located because it was an isolated village, and the only time she ventured any real distance from it was to come to the United States when she was 17.

“Grandma, where do you come from?” I would ask.

“Far.”

“What was it like?”

“Feh.”

The less she said, the more my imagination went wild, conjuring up images of a dark, mysterious place in Russia with sinewy alleys. I was awed that my grandmother, the woman who was my mother’s mother and called me “mamaleh,” lived in such a place and knew its secrets.

“Please, Gram, tell me.”

“It’s better to forget about it.”

She never spontaneously talked about Minkowitz, and I never gave up questioning her or trying to find out about her life before she came to America, before I knew her. Who was she before she was my grandmother?

“Tell me what you ate there, Gram.”

“Food.”

“Where did you buy it?”

“There was a market once a week, on Tuesdays. We had beans, potatoes, beets, corn….” her voice trailed off. She went into the kitchen to stir the chicken soup, and I watched the yellow chicken legs float to the surface and then disappear.

“Are you hungry, mamaleh?” she asked.

When I nodded, she opened the refrigerator and took out a jar full of schmaltz—rendered chicken fat—that was speckled with burnt onions. She spread half an inch of schmaltz on a piece of rye bread, and handed it to me.

“Did you eat schmaltz in Minkowitz?”

She nodded yes. I took a huge bite of bread, relishing the schmaltz, because it linked me to my grandmother’s village.

I was never very interested in religion, but I loved everything about my grandmother’s culture: the Yiddish newspaper that was folded up on an overstuffed, upholstered armchair in the living room; the front parlor, where I slept, and which looked out over the street; the pantry closet which smelled vaguely from matza. Most of all, I loved that she came from Minkowitz. It sounded so exotic. It was somewhere across the ocean, in a vast country called Russia. She wasn’t born in America, like I was. She came from a mysterious place and she was a foreigner with secrets. I felt about her the way the ancients must have felt about travelers who arrived in their midst; they wanted to hear stories, to learn about how people lived in faraway lands. The slightest details that my grandmother divulged about Minkowitz became indelibly imprinted on my brain.

“Gram, did you go to school?”

“No, mamasheyna.”

“Why not, Gram?”

“We weren’t allowed to.”

“Why couldn’t you go to school?”

I was like a little prosecuting attorney, and my grandmother softened on the witness stand. She got a faraway look in her eyes.

“I stood at the bottom of the hill, looking up at the school where the Russian girls studied. They wore blue uniforms. I wanted to be educated like them.”

“But you couldn’t….?”

She shook her head no. I wrote down everything she told me, and thought about it until the next time I saw her. Then I started asking questions again.

“If you didn’t go to school, what did you do all day in Minkowitz?”

“When I was 10 years old, like you are now, I was working.”

“What kind of work?”

“I dried tobacco leaves in the field with the women.”

I had never seen a tobacco leaf. Why did they need to be dried? I wrote down what my grandmother told me, and mulled it over until our next conversation. My mother said I was making my grandmother crazy. I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I loved my grandmother. I was just asking her about her childhood.

“Tell me about your house, Gram. What did it look like?”

“The floor was made from goat dreck.”

Goat shit for a floor. Were there clumps of dung? Who spread them out? Did they stink? What happened if you walked on the floor with bare feet? I clung to each tidbit, marinating it in my mind and imagination, repeating it to myself as though my life depended upon my remembering it.

On one visit, I was playing with cans of food in my grandmother’s hall closet, stacking them, and unstacking them, using them like big tin Legos. She walked by and patted me affectionately on the shoulder.

“Where in Russia was Minkowitz, Gram? Do you know the name of the biggest city in the area?”

Oy. Always Minkowitz. The biggest city was Kamenetz Podolsk.”

Again, I wrote down every word she said. I thought I was getting ancestral gems, but later, when I looked at the content, it was paltry indeed. No stories. No slice of life anecdotes. Just six facts about my grandmother’s life in Minkowitz. That was it. The weekly market was on Tuesday. When she was 10 years old, she dried tobacco leaves with the women. She lived at the bottom of a hill. The Russian girls went to school on top of the hill. The floor of the house was made of goat dung.  Kamenetz Podolsk was the big town. I repeated the scant facts over and over, clinging to them, imagining what they looked like, felt like, smelled like. It was so vivid that I felt as though I had lived in Minkowitz too.

I knew that in Minkowitz they spoke Yiddish. I started trying to imitate the sounds of the language since I couldn’t speak it. Instead, I invented a sort of fake Yiddish. I would call my grandmother, and, when she answered the phone, I would cheerfully ask, “Grandma, vus habastups-du?”

“Judie,” she would say sadly, “I don’t understand your Eedish.” That’s how she pronounced it: “Eedish.”

The next time I called, I greeted her with the bogus, “Grandma, hoison boisin galempt.”

“Judie, I’m sorry. I just can’t understand your Eedish.”

When I was 19, bedridden with mononucleosis and hepatitis, I didn’t have the energy to roll over or kick the covers off when it got too hot. My grandmother got on a train in Brooklyn, which was unusual for her, and came to see me in Queens. She sat next to my bed, on a folding chair, and informed me that she finally figured out why she didn’t understand my Yiddish. “Because you go to college and you speak a very educated Eedish.” If I had had the energy, I would have leapt out of bed and hugged her.

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has written for more than 100 publications. An acclaimed speaker and workshop leader, she is also the author of Life Is A Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel and the just-released The Spoon From Minkowitz: A Bittersweet Roots Journey to Ancestral Lands, from which this piece is excerpted and reprinted with the kind permission of the author. Her website is http://www.GlobalAdventure.us
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Jerusalem, 1976

by Michelle Edwards (Iowa City, IA) 

I apologized a lot the summer after I graduated from college. Easily the worst waitress in the seafood restaurant where I was working, perhaps even in their entire chain, I apologized for the wrong orders I delivered, the forgotten bowls of butter, and the length of time it took to bring, what seemed to me, an endless and unnecessary quantity of extra plates and silverware. The tips I earned waitressing, many times, generous tips given out of pity, allowed me to make the bundle of money I needed.

I had big plans. I was moving to Israel and starting a year of studies at Bazalel, the art academy in Jerusalem. It was 1976 and I was twenty-one years old. Near the end of my first year in Jerusalem, through contacts made at Bazalel, I landed a plum job printing etchings and lithographs for other artists in a studio affiliated with the Jerusalem Museum.

Living in Jerusalem I was always aware of my accent, my grammatical mistakes, and the countless ways I was identifiably American. Being foreign kept me on my guard. There’s a comfort in the familiar, what we know so well, the streets of our hometown or sounds of our mother tongue. I had left all that behind, without regrets. But it would have been an impossible treat, just once, to unexpectedly bump into a long lost pal from camp, or school, and, in English, joke around and share memories. That comfort was what I did miss. Regretted not having.

My father had died a few years before, and in my hometown of Troy, New York, my mother was busy raising my then teenage brother. My older sister was newly married and lived a few towns over. They were not great candidates for visiting me.

Back then, in the days before cell phones, a long-distance call was something you thought about carefully, planned for, did infrequently, and then, only in the late evening hours, when the rates went down substantially. Overseas mail was slow, and a trip to Israel, an expensive journey. Any traveler going there—neighbors, family friends, friends of neighbors, a grammar school classmate’s parents once, acquaintances even—would call me with a message from home, or maybe drop by my modest digs for coffee and cake. Sometimes with a letter or a small present from my mother. Being so far way, even our remote connections drew us together.

I write about all of this here to give an idea of how much it meant to me when my college friend, Laura, wrote asking if she might visit me in Jerusalem. Back in Albany, in our student days, Laura was my knitting buddy. Once, she had taught me a speedy afghan pattern, using three strands of knitting worsted on super jumbo needles. I still use a variation of this pattern for baby blankets. Knitting had been a love of mine since childhood. Now, with all that it took to live and work in Jerusalem, I was often too busy to knit.

Laura was living abroad, too, on the Greek island of Larnaca. Almost in my neck of the woods. More letters were exchanged and plans were made. I managed to get a few days off from work so we could travel together. Laura was interested in archeology, that was the reason she was in Greece, and we intended to go to Meggido and other sites. My job, printing etchings, dealing with other artist’s demands, was hard physical, and sometimes, emotional work. Having Laura come would give me a chance to vacation, to be carefree for a while. We might even knit, companionably again, outside at a café while sipping our cappuccinos and nibbling on a pastry.

Laura was due to arrive later in the day. I left work early; stopping at my apartment first to shower away the ink and solvent, the sweat and grime that come with being a printer. Clean and refreshed, I headed to Jerusalem’s central bus station.

Israeli buses were unreliable at best in those days. So I had allotted extra time for the eventualities that were sure to occur. Meeting a guest at the airport, being the first to welcome them to the country, was an important part of receiving visitors in Israel. I had wanted to do this right, to be there to say, “Shalom,” to my friend Laura.

The first bad sign was the lengthy line. The second one was really the third, fourth, and fifth ones as well; all buses to the airport came to the gate packed. Loaded. Full. They dribbled off a few passengers and boarded only a couple from the very front of the line. I was afraid to guess how long I would have to wait for my turn. I had miscalculated. The big cushion of time I had allowed for this kind of occurrence no longer seemed generous enough.

Anxiety was creeping into what was supposed to be a special afternoon. A bunch of folks around me began discussing sharing a sherut, a taxi, to the airport. I usually associated taxis with tourists, not working gals like me, but this was an emergency. I was desperate. With a bit of luck, I might make still be able to greet Laura as she left customs and joined the flow into the main greeting area. Squeezed in the middle of the back seat, the ride was suffocating and slow. Did I mention the heat?

When we got to the airport, I discovered Laura’s plane had landed early. Before its scheduled time. Who would have guessed that? I could hardly believe it was even possible.

I looked around for Laura. The airport wasn’t a big place. But I couldn’t find her anywhere. I headed to the information desk and had her paged. Three times. With instructions to meet me there. I waited and waited.

Nothing had gone right that day. This was a part of living in Israel I was still getting used to; much of what I took for granted when I lived in America, like buses and telephones, couldn’t be counted on there. Because of this, getting to places—work, the market, or the movies—and making plans of any kind, was complicated. The stress of the missed buses, the uncomfortable ride, and the afternoon heat had me frazzled, unhinged. And now no Laura.

Israel was and is a country that daily received and reunited the dispersed and separated, family and friends. The airport greeting area was an emotional arena. And that’s without including the pilgrims to the Holy Land. This was the day I was going to be a part of that show. The day I wore the badge of truly living there.

So where was Laura? Was she still in customs? It could be a lengthy process, and had occasionally, been so in my experience. Sometimes security arbitrarily selected a passenger for an extra thorough exam.  I checked by there again. Everyone on her flight had cleared through and appeared to be gone. Her name was on the passenger list, but that didn’t convince me she had actually been on the plane. Could be another system that didn’t work. After an hour or more, of paging and searching, I had to finally acknowledge that Laura wasn’t in the airport.

I jotted my phone number down on a piece of paper and left it with the information desk clerk, even though I knew she would never ever call me. The paper would be lost, and even if she did try, the phone in my apartment might not work that day. Defeated and disappointed, I did not even consider taking a bus home. Or a sherut. This time, I took a private taxi. It was an uncharacteristically, wildly extravagant gesture, and if I could have, I would have paid the driver extra to carry me up the stairs to my apartment.

On the ride back to Jerusalem, I had decided I’d return to work the next day. We were in the middle of printing an edition; it was the responsible, mature thing to do.  I’d tell everyone at the shop what had happened and gather up all the sympathy I could from my coworkers. There probably wouldn’t be much sympathy to gather, though. This was a country where the guys my age were just finishing their army service. Overreacting to life’s little disappointments was very American, a euphemism for being spoiled. Israelis were dealing with the big issues, like war and survival, not missed buses.

So what had happened to Laura, I wondered.  Did she get sick at the last minute? Break a leg? Was she called back to the States for an emergency? I hoped it was something more romantic, like she met the love of her life, hours or minutes before she was to come, and couldn’t bear to be parted from him. Exploring all these possibilities didn’t prepare me for what happened when I opened my apartment door.

There, sitting at my kitchen table, was Laura, smiling and sipping tea with my roommates, who had already taught her a few Hebrew words.

“Shalom,” she said.

Surprised, and relieved to find her at last, we quickly exchanged our stories of missing encounters. While I was stuffed in a sherut, Laura had zipped through customs; the usually busy airport had been momentarily empty.  Not finding me anywhere at the terminal or lobby, she was not distressed. No apology needed. She assumed something came up and I was unable able to make our meeting. An independent and seasoned traveler, she grabbed her luggage, hailed a taxi, and gave the driver my address.

I was amazed. It had never occurred to me that all the systems might function and deliver. The plane, customs, taxis.  If I had thought to save up a pocketful of asimonim, the Israeli phone tokens that could only be purchased from the post office, and were very often sold out, and if there had been a pay phone that actually worked, I could have called my apartment and asked my roommates if they had heard from Laura. But I hadn’t thought I would need to call.  And it didn’t matter now.

My guest had arrived. I needed to be a host. It was time for dinner. Maybe we went into town with my roommates and grabbed a falafel, or walked up to the makolet, the little grocery store in my neighborhood, and picked up some yogurts and fruit. I’m pretty sure we stayed away from the buses. The delight of having Laura with me, had helped shake loose the fury and strain of the day. Still I felt limp, washed out, and beat. Not long after eating, we settled into my room. Resting on my bed, I watched Laura unpack her bag.

“I knew that I couldn’t come and visit you without something to work on,” she said.

Laura had brought yarn, a crochet hook, and a shawl she learned to make from the women in the house where she lived. Sold to tourists, the shawls were lacey, with a delicate flower pattern that bloomed across the widest part.

I was a knitter with a very basic knowledge of crochet, mostly self-taught. The shawl was something new for me to try. Something beautiful to make. Every part of me was waking up, alert, anxious to turn my mind, my hands, and the wilted parts of my being, over to learning how to master this pattern.

Hours went by. The two of us sat and stitched, talked and laughed, probably preventing my roommates from having a good night’s rest. Laura guided me through the tricky sea of new stitches. Much, much later, right before dawn, it burst forth. The flower part of the shawl opened up. To this day, I can remember the amazed and exhausted buzz I felt. This is what I had been stitching for. It had all come together. In my hands was a gift of comfort and joy.

They say there are two Jerusalems. The spiritual one of mystics and true believers, where the holiest walk. And the other, the everyday one, where dinner is cooked, jobs are worked, and perhaps, where shawls are made.

That morning, long ago and far away, I learned a pattern was something I could believe in. My fumbles and mistakes could be frogged, taken out, and fixed. If necessary, I could double back and start again, because making the shawl was about trust. Putting my faith in wool and hook and trusting that after a hundred, or a thousand, or a million stitches, a flower will blossom.

Michelle Edwards is the author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays and cards for knitters. Her titles include: CHICKEN MAN (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and A KNITTER’S HOME COMPANION (an illustrated collection of stories, patterns and recipes). Michelle grew up in Troy, New York and now lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she shares, with her husband, a house full of books, yarn, and the artifacts of their three daughter’s childhoods.  

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